Polishing Those Pages

Querying is scary business. You’ve worked and cried and bled over your manuscript, sometimes for so many months or years that you pretend you’re not counting. Now, you’re ready to send it out. Your query is bright and shiny as a new penny, but how about those first pages?

Here are some tips to help you make you sure your sample pages are top notch:

1. Quickly & Viciously Annihilate Your Adverbs

Alright, I should probably tell you that I’m not one of those authors who absolutely hates all adverbs. In fact, I think some are quite lovely in certain places. However, too many of them can be a sign that your word choice isn’t as strong as it could be. Instead of saying your character “ran quickly,” try substituting it with something like sprinted, dashed, careened. The stronger your verbs the better.

2. Stilted Dialogue

The biggest piece of advice I can give you on this is: contractions are your friend! Think about it. Listen in on a conversation without really paying attention to the topic, but more about the way people are saying things. I guarantee you, you’re unlikely to hear someone say, “I cannot believe that you would not go to the store with me. You are such a jerk.” What you’re more likely to hear is something like, “I can’t believe you wouldn’t go to the store with me. You’re such a jerk.” Worried that your dialogue is coming across as unrealistic? Try reading it out loud. Or better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you. Not only will they stumble over those stiff phrases, but you’ll be able to pinpoint what’s not working with ease.

 3. Identify Your Quirks & Weed Them Out

We all have them. In my first drafts you’ll probably find seven-thousand uses of the word “that.” Your character might smirk a lot, maybe they smile or sigh too much, or their heart is racing so frequently they’re likely to keel over in some form of heart failure. Most of the time, your CPs and Beta Readers will point this out to you. Even so, make sure you’re internalizing your habits and paying attention to them when you’re revising.

4. Repeating Things Can Be Redundant

You see what I did there, right? Much like the ticks that show up in your writing, a lot of the time, usually subconsciously, you’ll describe things using the same words. The more unique the word, the easier it will be for the reader to identify it. This goes for verbs, body parts, everything. If you talk about your character’s hand in one sentence, maybe in the next one talk about their fingers, fingertips, or wrist. As best you can, vary your word choice. Curious about what words you may be overusing? Try something like Wordle which will generate a word cloud for you and show you what words are popping up frequently in your manuscript.

5. Make Your Character Names Stand Out

And by that I’m not suggesting that you name one of your characters Sequoia and the other one Rain. What I mean is that if you name your characters (or places) similarly, we’re gonna have a hell of a time remembering who is who. If your cast of characters includes Roberta, Rufus, Rusty, Rachel, and Raul, nine times out of ten I won’t recall which one is the five-year-old kid and which is the sexy mechanic. Even if there are only two similar names (Cara and Carol), because they’re so visually similar, I may accidentally sub one for the other. Save yourself and your reader the confusion by varying your name/place choices.

6. Filter Out Your Filter Words

Filter words are literally that–a filter that distances the reader from the character. Some examples: she saw, she heard, he realized, he thought, etc. Instead of saying, “She saw a bird take flight from a snow-laden branch and felt the snowflakes fall across her face,” wipe out that filter and say, “A bird took flight from a snow-laden branch, showering her upturned cheeks in snowflakes.” Much better, right? Try using the Find feature in Microsoft Word to single out those filter phrases.

7. Dialogue Tags Can Weigh Down Your Writing

Sometimes your dialogue just needs to breathe. Not every snippet of conversation requires a tag, and if you’re adding an action after whatever the character says, then including “said” isn’t necessary. Take this example:

“I guess I get what you’re saying,” he said and shrugged.

vs.

“I guess I get what you’re saying.” He shrugged.

Another thing to take note of–are all of your characters’ actions after the dialogue? Are they always before? Try spreading the actions around to make your dialogue read better and vary the structure.

8. Show Us Emotion, Don’t Tell Us

Quick, go search your WIP for sad, nervous, excited, mad, etc. Now, not all of these need to go, but most of them should. I don’t want to read that your character is angry, I want to feel it. Don’t tell me, “Mary is very sad.” Let me see it by allowing the character to convey it through their actions. If your character is sad, tell me something like, “Mary’s shoulders drooped, and her worn out sneakers scuffed against the floor.” If you’re struggling with how to express internal emotion through physical actions, one of the best resources you can possibly found out there is The Emotion Thesaurus. Trust me, it’s a gold mine.

9. Spice Up Your Paragraph/Sentence Length

Similar sentence structure is bad. So is repetitive paragraph lengths. This sounds like robot talk. Do not do this.

Seriously though, the key to making your paragraphs read and flow better is making sure they’re not all the same length. Same goes for your paragraphs. Another thing to look for is how you’re starting your new paragraphs. Does every one start with “I”? Maybe they all begin with a verb? The more variety you can introduce in your writing, the better.

10. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

Okay, I’m reusing this one from my query-writing tips (in case you missed that one, you can find it here), but it’s incredibly important throughout the entire editing process. No, one misplaced comma or misspelled word won’t be the death of your query or pages. But a whole ton of them? Yeah, that probably will. The most difficult part of proofing your own work is that you’ve read it so many times your brain autocorrects words for you. The best way I’ve found to get past this is to look at it in a different format–send the file to your eReader, change the background to black and the font to white, read from the bottom up, read it out loud, and of course, utilize those CPs.

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There you have it. Ten simple tips to help you make your sample pages shine. Any important tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!

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Make That Query Shine

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent quite a bit of time judging the entries for this year’s Query Kombat, which is hosted by the wonderful Michelle Hauck (@Michelle4laughs), Michael Anthony (@Ravenous Rushing), and SC (@SC_Author). In case you’re not familiar with the contest, 64 entries were chosen based on their query and first 250 words and then battled it out tournament style until one query was left standing. (Missed Query Kombat, but still interested in participating in a contest? Check out Michelle’s upcoming contest, New Agent. Details here.)

So, after reviewing a good chunk of those 64 entries, here are some of the common pitfalls I stumbled across.

1. The Rule of Three

In almost all instances, your query should never have more than three named characters. What you need to remember here is that the reader (agents) will just be familiarizing themselves with your story, so it’s incredibly difficult to keep track of too many names. Especially if your manuscript falls somewhere on the SFF spectrum where you’re utilizing new concepts, worlds, etc. Read through your query and see what names can be substituted with titles instead. For example, instead of saying Stacy, can you just call her your main character’s sister? Typically these three characters (if you’re including the maximum of three) will be your protagonist, your antagonist, and a love interest.

2. Word Count, Word Count, Word Count

Please, for the love of all that’s holy, know acceptable word count ranges for the genre you’re writing. Not sure what those are? Check out this super helpful blog post from agent extraordinaire, Jennifer Laughran. Agents are looking to love your story, so don’t give them a reason to start doubting you right off the bat. Yes, once you’re an uber successful author like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King you can pretty much to do whatever you’d like, but as a debut author looking for a home, you want to stay within these ranges.

3. Know Your Genre

Supernatural Historical Fairy Tale Retelling is not a genre. Neither is Literary Science Fiction Self-Help. Do some research and make sure the genre you’re pitching in your query letter is actually an acceptable genre.

4. Voice Is Everything

This one is hard, and one of those intangibles that you’re either able to instill in your query or not. We can always tell you when it’s missing, but can’t always tell you how to fix. Imbuing your query with voice will make it stand out from the pile and give agents a flavor of what they can expect in your manuscript. That being said, do not, DO NOT, ever write your query as your main character. It’s never a good idea. I promise.

5. Vagueness Is The Enemy

This is especially important when you get to the stakes of your query. Don’t leave us hanging! Don’t tell us: With danger looming closer, Emily must decide between saving a life and saving the world. What danger? Whose life? How is she going to save the world? Instead tell us: With the Devil hot on Emily’s heels, she must decide between rescuing the lost soul of her brother and unleashing Hell on Earth. See what I mean?

However, this doesn’t just apply to the stakes. Comb through your entire query, banish vagueness, and insert specificity. Curious whether you’ve done a good job? Send your query off to someone who’s never read your story before. They’ll be sure to pick out the spots that aren’t clear enough.

6. Proofread Until Your Eyes Burn

Not really, save your eyes. But double check, triple check, quadruple check. Have CPs, betas, and maybe the guy at the bus stop read it through for grammatical errors and typos. With so many queries landing in an agent’s inbox, make sure your query is bright and shiny. Adding to this, type up your query e-mail and send it to yourself for a dry run. You’ll be able to spot any weird formatting issues and get those fixed before sending out your first set of queries.

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That’s it, folks. Any important tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!

Hello, Camp NaNoWriMo

Camp NaNoWriMo.

About a year ago, I saw this bandied about on Twitter for the very first time. I frowned at the abbreviation, trying to puzzle it out. People asked about who was going and talked about their cabins. Of course I was picturing a real-life cabin with a bunch of writers piled inside, blinds drawn down, huddling on their beds with their laptops perched on their knees, faces awash in the electronic glow of their screens.

I was way off base.

For those new on the writing scene, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo takes place in November, and Camp NaNoWriMo sessions take place in April and July. An important note here is these are virtual sessions, so anyone can participate. The November session has writers hurtling towards a goal of 50k words, whereas the April and July sessions are more open-ended and allow the writer to set a goal for themselves ranging from 10K to 1 million words. (Side note: Anyone who can spit out 1 million words in 30 days is some type of crazy word ninja.) As well, during Camp NaNoWriMo, you can create or join a cabin comprised of 10 other writers who can cheer you on (or guilt you when you’re falling behind your goal).

Why in the world would you want to do this?

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is actually getting words on the page. Or even finding the time to sit down at the computer (or notebook, or the back of that Wendy’s receipt if that’s your thing). With Camp NaNoWriMo, you’re committing to a certain word goal. You’re working on a (fictitious) deadline. You’re committing to dedicating time to your craft. And if you can stick with it for thirty days? If you can meet your goal? Well, not only does that feel damn good, but you’re well on your way to making it a habit.

Enthusiasm. Determination. Dedication.

That’s not to say that NaNoWriMo is for everyone. Not everyone is a fast-drafter, and that is perfectly okay! Finding your own pace and what works for you is super important. Don’t let anyone try and tell you that there’s only one way to write. Everyone does it differently. My writing habits even fluctuate from book to book. Go with what works and don’t worry about anyone else. Write for you.

However, if you’re so inclined, give Camp NaNoWriMo a go. Set yourself a reasonable goal and have at it. As for me, I’ll be participating in this April’s Camp NaNoWriMo and keeping my fingers crossed that I reach my self-imposed finish line.

Happy writing!